For thrills, chills and spills, there was no better place to be last week than in the Big Ten, where the basketball games were close (thrills!), the weather frigid (chills!) and the going slippery (spills!) for everyone, including nationally ranked teams. The league's three Top 20 outfits. Michigan State (No. 1), unbeaten Illinois (No. 4) and Michigan (No. 16), lost five of the six games they played. When the storm of upsets finally subsided, the surprising conference leader was Ohio State.
The real winner of the week, however, was the weather, which forced the postponement of two games and made traveling conditions perilous, particularly for Michigan State and Michigan, each of which lost twice on the road. Both of the Spartans' defeats came on last-second shots, 57-55 to Illinois and 52-50 to Purdue. Michigan also lost to the Boilermakers, 77-67, and then to Wisconsin, 77-66, Appropriately, the only team that was able to win away from home was the one that finished the week in first place. Presumably traveling by dogsled and surviving on rations of reindeer meat and whale blubber, the Buckeyes held off Iowa 72-67 and beat the Illini 69-66 in overtime.
After just two weeks of league play, Ohio State is the only Big Ten team without a conference loss, and Northwestern the only one without a win—a situation that could change at any moment. But the league has been successful at more than just fratricide. Before the conference schedule began. Big Ten teams knocked off some of the best outfits in the country: Duke and Louisville (by Ohio State), Texas A&M and Syracuse (Illinois), Marquette (Wisconsin), Pennsylvania (Iowa), Kentucky (Indiana) and Dayton (Michigan). Big Ten teams also won eight of the 14 tournaments they entered, most notably the Rainbow Classic (Purdue), the Far West Classic (Michigan State) and the Pillsbury Classic (Minnesota). If Michigan State and Michigan can beat Kansas and Notre Dame in the Big Ten's two games remaining against outside competition, the conference's won-lost percentage of .732 against nonleague opponents would be the highest in 25 years.
Big Ten basketball has always been good—the conference has won five national championships—but this year it may be better and more competitive than ever. In fact, only the ACC can claim to be its rival in overall quality. "If they had bowls in basketball we'd have eight teams playing." says Michigan Coach John Orr. "We have more good clubs from top to bottom than anybody," says Fred Schaus, the former Purdue coach who is now the Boilermakers' associate director of athletics. Lee Rose, the new Purdue coach, adds, "I worked for three years trying to build up a schedule at UNC-Charlotte, and now I'd like to get out of one."
More fun than comparing Big Ten basketball to that of other leagues is the comparison of Big Ten basketball to Big Ten football. Here is something for Woody to mull over in retirement: in the last 10 years, the conference has had only two football champions—we all know who they've been—but seven different basketball champs. During that decade, the football teams have had only three winning seasons outside the league and a 4-13 postseason record. In the same span, the basketball teams have been .631 against nonconference competition during the regular season and .673 in tournaments, with the NIT and CCA championships in 1974 and an NCAA title in 1976. "The Big Ten has become a football myth," says Detroit News columnist Jerry Green. That's J-e-r-r-y G-r-e-e-n, Woody.
Despite the marked difference between the league's accomplishments in basketball and football, conference athletic directors still treat hoops as football's poor relation, even while Midwestern fans are making the Big Ten the country's best-drawing basketball league. For example, the conference produces a highlight film for football but not for basketball. Nonetheless, basketball coaches have gained some breakthroughs for their teams this season. For the first time, basketball players have training-table privileges; the size of traveling squads has been increased from 12 to 15; and coaches may give scholarship assistance to a transfer while he sits out his year of ineligibility. These changes represent considerable improvement over conditions in years past. Fred Taylor, who in the '60s coached Ohio State to the NCAA finals three straight years, says, "We couldn't even get our press brochure out on time. The publicity office was too busy taking care of football."
Those days are gone for good, largely because of what basketball is doing for the Big Ten's bank balances and image. Michigan Athletic Director Don Canham admits he did not give a hoot for hoops—until he saw how lucrative a winning team could be. Michigan State Football Coach Darryl Rogers even gives Spartan basketball star Earvin Johnson some of the credit for State's upsurge in football. "Earvin has helped us because he has made people proud of Michigan State," says Rogers.
Another striking example of what basketball can do for moribund pride is this year's Illinois team. To fully appreciate where the 15-1 Illini are now—among the nation's Top Ten and second in the league—you have to know where they used to be. Illinois hasn't had a conference championship in football or basketball since it won both in 1963. Before that, the last championships came in 1953 and 1952, respectively. It isn't that the Illinois people didn't care. They cared too much. Their excesses put both sports on probation in 1967 and basketball again in 1975.
When Lou Henson came to Champaign from New Mexico State in 1975 to be the new basketball coach, Illinois was in the second year of its probation and had won only 13 games the previous two seasons. Football had produced one winning team in the last 13. Fencing was strong, but so what? "It's hard to believe that a school of this quality in a state this size could have gone so long without succeeding in the major sports," says Henson. "People were starved for a winner."
With a little ingenuity and a lot of hard work, Henson figured he could turn the basketball program around. First, he got a five-year contract. Then he organized the Rebounders, a booster club of friends and alumni, and rounded up a group of vociferous students, named them the Orange Crunch and gave them choice seats at courtside. Predictably, the Orange Crunch became the Orange Crush when the bottlers of that drink offered to provide free T shirts.
Meanwhile, Henson and his staff started making the rounds of Illinois high schools, visiting 400 in the first year alone. "To be good we don't need all the players in the state, just some of them," Henson says. "Marquette won the national championship in 1977 with Bo Ellis and Jerome Whitehead, two Chicagoans. We need to get players like that to stay home."
Henson's first season was doubly successful because not only did he have a winning record at 14-13, but he also signed three of Illinois' all-state players, Steve Lanter, Levi Cobb and Rob Judson. Lanter's sister Sheri, who is now an Illinois cheerleader, recalls the reaction back home in Belleville when Steve made his decision: "People said, 'Why are you going to play for the Illini? They're nothing.' "
Derek Holcomb, a 6'11" all-state player, thought so, too. He turned Henson down that year and signed with Indiana, the reigning national champion. "I wanted to be a winner," he says. "Illinois didn't get my attention because it was a loser. Indiana was the place to go." But after one season in Bloomington, Holcomb decided that Indiana wasn't the place to be. He transferred to Illinois and has become the rebounding and defensive mainstay of the team. The leading offensive players are two more all-staters, sophomores Mark Smith and Eddie Johnson.
Before the season began, Illinois appeared to be no better than fifth in the league. Solid defense and unselfish offense gave the Illini seven early wins, but most observers thought they would get their comeuppance in the Kentucky Invitational. Instead they won, beating Syracuse and Texas A&M. Then they won a tournament in Alaska and two conference games, at Indiana and Northwestern, and suddenly they were the No. 4 team in the country. But not even Henson professes to know how good the Illini are. "I never expected anything like this," he says. "I didn't think we could contend for the title until next year. I even thought we might be a little behind schedule."
The only schedule that meant anything last week was the one that showed Michigan State would arrive in Champaign on Wednesday. Now here at last was something for Illinois fans to get really excited about. Not only did their team have a chance to beat the nation's No. 1 club, but they also had an opportunity to become No. 1 themselves. When the Illini ran onto the floor, they were greeted by the largest crowd in the 16-year history of Assembly Hall (16,209), and only the second sellout in the last seven years. Everybody, Governor Jim Thompson included, was wearing orange or waving orange or, at the very least, thinking orange. The team was apparently so overcome by excitement that it almost forgot how to play. While Illinois was missing eight of its first 13 shots, Michigan State was hitting 11 of 12 to take a 22-11 lead 8½ minutes into the game. "Right then, I imagine a lot of people were saying. 'Well, it was nice while it lasted,' " Henson says.
After a time-out, Illinois settled down and went on a 21-6 tear to lead by four at the half. The Illini trailed only twice after that—by only a point both times—and there were five ties. Eddie Johnson broke the last of them with three seconds left by sinking an 18-foot jumper from the baseline. The fans went crazy, but as State's Earvin Johnson noted, "At 15-0. who wouldn't? It's the same for them this year as it was for us last year when we surprised everyone by winning the title."
To remain No. 1—a position the Illini held in most fans' minds, if not in the actual ratings, because balloting for this week's ranking wouldn't be held for three more days—Illinois still had to beat Ohio State on Saturday. A team made up largely of sophomores and juniors, the Buckeyes had lost to Butler and Toledo in their first three games, but they were now 8-4 and, according to Coach Eldon Miller, showing more maturity and patience with every outing. What they weren't showing, however, was much balance. Junior Guard Kelvin Ransey, who is tied for second among Big Ten scorers with a 23.0 average, and 6'11" sophomore Center Herb Williams, the league's leading rebounder, give them a devastating one-two punch, but those were the only two Buckeyes scoring in double figures. On Thursday, when Ohio State blew a 16-point second-half lead against a strong Iowa team before winning in the last 2½ minutes, Ransey and Williams had combined for 40 points.
Obviously, if Illinois could stop either of them, it would win easily. At least it seemed that way at the half, because Ransey had four points, Williams 16, and the Illini led by eight. Amazingly, the usually unstoppable Ransey never did get unpacked, finishing with 11 points and six turnovers, but Ohio State came back to send the game into overtime at 60-all, thanks to three crucial plays by sophomore Carter Scott (see cover). In the last 65 seconds, he prevented one basket by blocking a layup, scored the tying bucket with a drive through the middle and caused a jump ball—and controlled the ensuing tip—in the Illinois half of the floor.
The overtime was no contest. Illinois committed two turnovers and missed eight straight shots before making its first field goal with 14 seconds left. Ohio State scored seven of its nine points at the foul line, including two after time had expired, to win the game.
Henson was upset that Ohio State had received 38 opportunities at the foul line and made 25, while his team—the home team, mind you—had gotten only eight and made four. Miller explained it had been his game plan to take the ball inside in hopes of drawing fouls. Indeed, nine of Williams' season-high 29 points and eight of Scott's 16 came at the free-throw line.
For Illinois, it was a sad and unexpected ending to the nation's longest winning streak and most refreshing success story. The bubble had burst, the slipper had shattered, but the memory lingered on. "I'll never forget what it was like this week," Lanter said. "The reporters, the TV cameras, the way friends called to say hello and total strangers came up on the street to say 'We love you.' Even though we lost, I think they'll stick with us. We've finally got a winner."
Just like almost every other school in the Big Ten.